In the history of Russian art, the late nineteenth century was a period of creative innovation and a fundamental restructuring of form.
In the 1890s, a new chapter was opened in the visual arts by a generation of artists who radically revised almost the entire range of established tradition. Authorities that had seemed immutable were suddenly toppled from their pedestals. The horizon of artistic creativity broadened, a new aesthetic emerged, and new trends arose, all in striking contrast to what the earlier art movements of the nineteenth century had propagated. The revaluation of values led to cardinal changes in the interpretation and understanding of creative objectives and techniques.
In all these processes, a preeminent, if not definitive role was played by the artists and art critics grouped around the journal Mir iskusstua [The Golovin]. However, in order to properly assess the historic significance of the artistic, educational, and organizational activities of that group, one must at least briefly review the general state of fin de siècle Russian art.
By that time academic painting was no longer the progressive factor, it had once been. However, due to governmental backing it continued to thrive exclusively as a reactionary trend serving the purposes of official art.
A crucial role in the reshaping of Russian art during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was played by members of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions (the Peredvizhniki or the Itinerants). Having achieved remarkable results in the 1870s, the Itinerants reached their peak in the 1880s. Genuine masterpieces appeared at practically each of the traveling exhibitions. At that time Vasily Surikov produced the Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy, Menshikov in Beriozou, and Boyarina Morozova. Ilya Repin painted his Religious Procession in Kursk Province, They Did Not Expect Him, and many of his best portraits. A number of other well-known painters also took part in the society’s activities.
By the 1890s, having fulfilled their highly creditable social and historical mission of releasing progressive Russian painting from the shackles of the antiquated academic tradition and having developed a consistently realist method, the Itinerants had ceased to be innovative and were in danger of coming full circle.
Yet the creative potential that the Itinerants had introduced with their new approach was far from exhausted. In the 1890s, several of the younger painters represented at traveling exhibitions displayed superlative talent and largely contributed to the realist trend. One must inevitably mention Sergei Korovin’s Village Community Meeting (1893), which was shown at the 22nd Itinerant Exhibition, Nikolai Kasatkin’s Poor People Gathering Coal at a Worked-Out Pit and his study, Woman Miner, both done in 1894 and displayed at the 23rd Itinerant Exhibition, and, finally, Sergei Ivanov’s study of prisoner life that figured at the 28th Itinerant Exhibition. Each of the artists named built on those particular pieces to produce an extensive cycle of paintings.
Thus Sergei Korovin dedicated himself to the traditional Itinerant theme of peasant life, furnishing a probing reflection of the Russian countryside with the acute social problems that followed the abolition of serfdom in 1861. Like Korovin, Sergei Ivanov originally concentrated on the peasant theme. In the 1880s, he produced a series of pictures about migrant peasants who had abandoned their native lands and trekked to Siberia in search of a better life. Later, in the 1890s, he embarked on a new cycle which portrayed life in prisons, stockades, and labour camps.
Thematically, this cycle was particularly relevant during the period of political reaction under Tsar Alexander III with its surging tide of popular unrest. As Ivanov’s biographers rightly noted, for him this cycle served as a prelude for that subject matter which was to gain prominence in his work at the time of the first Russian Revolution (1905-07)…
Some artworks of the featured painters:
Alexander Benois (1870 – 1960)
Painter, graphic artist, theatrical designer and director, art historian and critic, museum researcher and curator.
Léon Bakst (1866 – 1942)
Theatrical designer, painter and graphic artist
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